How To Become The Next Scott Thornbury: An Interview
As part of TEFL Exchange, I want to really work on bringing useful resources and information from experts in the field to you, the readers. I’ve been reaching out to some of the thought leaders in English Language Teaching to find out their perspectives on teaching English, and how they got to where they are. As part of this, I was lucky enough to interview Scott Thornbury. Scott is one of the most important figureheads in English Language Teaching today, and the author of a great deal of recommended reading for English teachers of all levels and abilities. Aside from authoring works like ‘An A-Z of ELT’, ‘the CELTA trainer’s course manual’, ‘About Language’, and the well-known ‘Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching’, Scott is also the Curriculum Coordinator for the MA TESOL programme at The New School in New York. In short, Scott Thornbury is one of the pioneers of the industry and well known by any teacher worth their salt. What’s more, ‘An A-Z of ELT’ and ‘About Language’ have just been released and revised in a new second edition – so if you’ve not got them on your library shelf yet, now’s the time.
If you want to read more, Scott’s articles are available on his website, as well as links to his talks and videos and an index of his books and published works. We highly recommend that next time you’re not busy lesson planning, you check them out here. In the meantime, please enjoy our interview and the seven questions that we were itching to ask.
TEFL Exchange: Hi Scott, thank you so much for letting us grab this interview with you. We’ll head straight in with our first question. We’d like to know – what is the most important advice you could give to someone who’s about to begin teaching English as a Foreign Language?
Scott Thornbury: One piece of advice would be to enroll in a foreign language class so as to experience language learning first-hand. Another would be to keep an open mind as to what works best in the classroom: there are as many different techniques and strategies as there are classrooms and learners, so experiment, experiment, experiment.
TEFL Ex: That’s great to hear – experimenting with different techniques is something I often forget to do, especially when I’m too deep in my ‘comfort-zone’. The next question I’d like to ask is about progressing in the English teaching world. How did you move from teaching into authoring ELT books?
ST: Authoring ELT books was a natural progression from teacher training and from giving seminars and presentations. About Language, for example, was essentially a compilation of worksheets I had produced for my in-service Delta courses in International House Barcelona.
TEFL Ex: Interesting. So maybe we should start hanging onto the worksheets we produce now…just in case! We’d like to ask you how English teaching has changed during the time you’ve been active in the field, and how do you think it’ll change in future?
ST: Teaching has changed radically since I first began, principally because of the advent – within my first two or three years of teaching – of the communicative approach. Nothing as radical has really happened since, although some subsequent methodological developments, such as the lexical approach, did create a ripple if not a wave, in the way English is taught and described. Of course, technology has played a big part in shaping developments in classroom practice, although we need to be cautious of some of the claims that are made for it.
Perhaps the most important new idea is the notion of English as a lingua franca, and that this may suffice to be a sufficient goal for many learners. By challenging the supremacy of native speaker models, ELF continues to have an impact on goal-setting, testing and error correction, even if theorists argue as to the exact nature of ELF, e.g. whether it even exists as a codifiable variety of English.
TEFL Ex: I see! I’m sure that native speakers as the ‘supreme’ in ELT will continue to matter less and less. Could you share one of your favourite memories of your experience teaching English, either in the classroom or out?
ST: Within my first year of teaching (in Cairo, Egypt) I was precipitated into the role of Asst Dir of studies which basically involved covering classes of teachers who hadn’t showed up, often at very short notice. The ability to improvise using whatever the students threw at me was extremely formative. I even remember one lesson where I was teaching two classes simultaneously, dashing from room to room as I set up tasks to keep them busy. I learned so much about teaching in those first years in Cairo, and I also learned that if you put your trust in the learners, amazing things will happen.
TEFL Ex: So, what would you say to a teacher wishing to follow in your footsteps?
ST: I was incredibly lucky when I started out as there seemed to be limitless opportunities for developing as a teacher if you first took some initiative. I’m not sure if these opportunities are as available or accessible now, although the fact that the Internet allows interaction between teachers in vastly different contexts is an incredible boon – I’m thinking of blogs, webinars, social networking and so on. If you don’t already take advantage of these resources, then you really should.
TEFL Ex: Great. I’m looking to work more on producing some lists of people and places online for teachers to find good resources and discussion, so we’re glad to hear that. So finally, if there was one country you’d love to teach in, but haven’t so far – where would that be?
ST: I have to say Vietnam. I first visited two years ago and was immediately struck by the sense of being in a very richly textured cultural tradition: history, language, religion, food, art and music – a feeling that you don’t always get from every place you go to – Egypt and Mexico would be other examples. I’d like to dip my toes in that! TEFL Ex: I agree, I feel that Vietnam is such an interesting place. The capital city too, is still very unique and not quite as globalised as other major world capitals. It feels more like a small town than a booming metropolis. Anyway, thanks for your time and your insight – I’m sure our readers are going to appreciate it too.
Check out Scott Thornbury’s books and published work here.